Almost a year ago to the day, undefeated No. 1 South Carolina entered Gampel Pavilion to take on the No. 2-ranked UConn women’s basketball team. The Gamecocks would leave Storrs with their first loss of the season, falling to the Huskies 87-62, in front of a sold-out crowd.
Now, the roles are reversed.
No. 1 UConn (22-0, 12-0 the American) heads to Columbia, South Carolina to take on the No. 2 Gamecocks (22-0, 10-0 SEC) in front of what has already been announced as a sold-out crowd of 18,000 at the Colonial Life Arena, the first sellout in the history of South Carolina women’s basketball.
“There’s a lot of coaches and a lot of teams that don’t want to play these games in February,” Auriemma said. “I’m glad [South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley] does, I always do, I always think they’re good, and I think Monday night my kids are really excited about this.”
The Huskies enter their matchup against the Gamecocks on a 59-game win streak and just two days removed from a 92-46 win over East Carolina. After going scoreless in the team’s victory against Tulane, sophomore guard Kia Nurse led all scorers with a career-high 20 points to help UConn to its eighth win in a row by 40 or more points.
“[I was] frustrated, just with myself and things were going wrong. Obviously wasn’t focusing on the proper things and kind of just bounced back from that today,” Nurse said after the Tulane game. “I think I was just more loose today in warm-up and not overthinking anything. When I don’t think as much, I always play better.”
South Carolina welcomes the Huskies after taking down No. 18 Kentucky 78-68 at home on Feb. 4. Alaina Coates led the Gamecocks with 27 points and 13 rebounds in the victory for her 12th double-double, the most in the SEC.
Staley and South Carolina took down the Wildcats with star Tiffany Mitchell missing most of the game after leaving in the second quarter with a lower back injury. Despite the injury, Mitchell will be good to go against the Huskies, and the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer at 14.6 points per game will be one of the toughest tests for the Huskies’ backcourt this season.
“She’s a tough kid, she’s a tough competitor. She’s a really good basketball player, really skilled,” Auriemma said of Mitchell. “In their biggest games, if you look, she generally has a lot to do with the outcome of those games, and again that doesn’t surprise me.”
South Carolina’s frontcourt also poses a difficult challenge for UConn, as Coates and sophomore A’ja Wilson form one the biggest skilled and physical frontcourts in the country. Wilson, the nation’s No. 1 recruit two years ago, nearly committed to UConn before choosing to stay home in South Carolina, and leads the Gamecocks with 16.7 points and 63 blocks this season.
“They’re probably going to be the hardest team that we’ve played this year to defend in the lane because nobody has that combination of size and strength,” Auriemma said of the Gamecocks’ frontcourt. “They’re both big and strong and tough kids, so it’s going to be a real challenge because we’re not as big.”
The Huskies are 18-3 all-time in No.1 vs No. 2 games, including last year’s victory over the Gamecocks, while South Carolina is 0-2. UConn is also 13-2 all-time as the No. 1 seed in No. 1 vs No. 2 matchups and 3-0 all-time against South Carolina in a series that dates back to 2007. UConn won the only matchup played at South Carolina, a 77-48 win on Dec. 28 2008.
“No matter how many games you win, no matter what your record is, no matter how many championships you have, when you have the opportunity to play against a really good team on the road, you get excited about it,” Auriemma said. “They’re pretty excited about this one.”
UConn and the Gamecocks tip off Monday night at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN2.
Dan Madigan is the associate Sports editor, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.